National Geographic for Kids (Business edition)

Dear John,
Jake Adelstein is struggling to explain
the National Geographic Society

to his 10-year-old daughter.
Is there something you can do to help?
(For the backstory about Mr. Adelstein,
NGS & the Japanese mafia, see this.)

Dear John,
Will you help?

Dear John: Please help avert a potential disaster

To: John Fahey, NGS CEO
Re: National Geographic’s scheduled documentary on the Japanese mafia

When people risk their lives to help
the National Geographic Society,
should our Society help them in return?

We ask because National Geographic Television is scheduled to release a new documentary about the Yakuza (aka the Japanese mafia). Unfortunately, the current version, titled Gangland Tokyo, might endanger the lives of people who helped make the film possible.

That warning comes from Jake Adelstein, who was hired by National Geographic Television (NGT) as an expert consultant for the film, but who recently resigned from the project in protest. Based on Mr. Adelstein’s thumbnail bio, he knows about what he speaks: Adelstein was the first American to be hired by the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper, and is the only American journalist ever to have been admitted to the insular Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club. He’s also the author of Tokyo Vice (right), which Publisher’s Weekly, in a starred review, called “a deeply thought-provoking book: equal parts cultural exposé, true crime, and hard-boiled noir.”

What is the potential danger of NGT’s current version of Gangland Tokyo? Here’s Mr. Adelstein:

I have been working as a consultant on a National Geographic Television documentary on the yakuza since the summer of last year. I resigned on February 24th. I also asked that my name be removed from the program, Gangland Tokyo.

I did this for two reasons. I was not given full access to the materials that would allow me to verify the factual accuracy of the program and thus unable to do my job properly. There are also issues of the program being seen as yarase (やらせ).  Since I can’t verify the factual accuracy, taking the money and continuing would be perfidious. Also, after seeing a rough cut of the program, I now have serious concerns about the safety of all Americans and Japanese sources, friends, and the staff of National Geographic Channel Japan who are involved with this program. There is a chance that the yakuza that have been betrayed by NGT will use violence against those residing in Japan to express their anger. I am even concerned about the safety of the yakuza that agreed to appear in the documentary, probably under false pretenses and false promises. They will face retaliation from their superiors if the program is aired as it is now. Yakuza are people too, a small minority of them are good people in their own right, and once they cooperate with the program, they are also sources. And sources have to be protected. That is the good faith that is demanded in responsible journalism.

In response to these concerns, which Mr. Adelstein shared with the producers weeks before he resigned, National Geographic Television wrote:

“Jake, this is not a misunderstanding of the nature of journalism. This is a misunderstanding regarding your role as a consultant to the program. National Geographic never intended for you, personally, to fact check the entire program, line by line. Rather, you were hired for your expertise on the subject matter and your consultation was to assure the general accuracy of the subject in the program.” [emphasis added]


NGT to Mr. Adelstein, 1 February 2011

Problem is, the contract signed by Mr. Adelstein and NGT (below) says something very different:

“Your consultation support shall address the factual accuracy of the Program.” [emphasis added]

Contract between NGT & Jake Adelstein

NGT’s shifting of gears, and the difference between general and factual accuracy, raises several questions:

1. What  is “general accuracy”? Exactly how would someone check it?

2. How can a documentary film be “generally accurate” without being “factually accurate”?

3. The letter from NGT (top) also says: “…you only need to opine on the Program as presented in its final form.” Opine? As in “opinion”? The contract requires Mr. Adelstein, who was hired as an expert, to check the facts.

4. Why has National Geographic changed the way it describes Mr. Adelstein’s responsibilities?

What’s especially troubling is that Mr. Adelstein evidently agreed to work on this project because he trusted National Geographic:

To avoid any ambiguity, Mr. Adelstein put his money where his mouth is: He has reportedly returned his consultant’s fee of $6,000. On the memo line of his check to NGT (postdated to April), we’re told he wrote: “a clear conscience.”

But in the end, John, all of this — the contract, the correspondence, the legal interpretations, the check, the growing online buzz, and our Society’s reputation —  doesn’t matter nearly much as the lives at stake. For a host of reasons, NGT’s attempt to document the Yakuza has gone awry. Members of the Yakuza who never should have been interviewed — per Mr. Adelstein’s expert instructions — were put on camera anyway; now these people realize they’re in danger, and don’t want to appear in the film at all.

Put another way: This documentary is no longer about taking viewers inside the Yakuza. It’s no longer about exposing a criminal subculture. It’s not about them. It’s about us. It’s about our willingness to adhere to journalistic standards that have long been a hallmark of National Geographic — not because the standards boost TV ratings (or please our friends at News Corp), but because the standards bolster our Society’s reputation and they protect people’s lives.

In case you’re wondering, this isn’t melodrama. The risks here are very real, according to this internal National Geographic email:

Which brings us back to the question we posed to you at the top:

When people risk their lives to help
the National Geographic Society,

should our Society help them in return?

Will you help them?

We sincerely hope you find your voice, and find a way to do the right thing.

John rarely, if ever, gives interviews.
But we’re asking for one — partly to hear his plans for this NG documentary —
and you can help by clicking “Recommend,” below.

Don’t have a Facebook account? Or prefer not to show your face? That’s okay.
Just email me — alan [at] societymatters [dot] org — and
I’ll raise our Anonymous But Curious tally by one.
(It’s under the Facebook widget in the right sidebar.)

“You’ve got to change a bit….”

John Fahey comments on the future of non-profit organizations during a panel discussion last September in Washington, DC.

If you were willing to pay $39 for a ticket in September, you could have listened to John Fahey, CEO of National Geographic, and NPR’s Vivian Schiller “Discuss the Future” of non-profit (media) organizations. The event, sponsored by Bisnow, was moderated by Richard Newman, a lawyer who represents both NPR and NGS. (We’ve never seen John participate in a panel moderated by a journalist, but it’s good to see him stepping up on any stage, even when chaperoned by his attorney.)

Although no transcript is available, Bisnow posted a very brief summary, including this observation by John:

“The minute you go international you’ve got to change a bit so you resonate with the local audiences,” John says. For example, when National Geographic Magazine published a story about Barcelona, the Spanish language edition had to change the title to “An American Visits Barcelona.” … John tells us that ideally National Geographic will be viewed as a truly local organization in all parts of the world.

Some reactions:

•  The Barcelona anecdote is more than ten years old, and not a particularly enlightening one because…

•  Tweaking the title of a feature story is breathtakingly insignificant compared to how John has changed both our Magazine and our Society. To “go international,” to “resonate with the local audiences,” and to get into Russia and China, John had to engineer some major changes in the Magazine’s editorial focus. Exhibit A: The National Geographic story you’ll never get to read.

• The Arabic edition of NGM is distributed in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. It’s a trans-national magazine in a way that, say, NGM-Poland is not. How, then, will NGM-Arabic help the National Geographic Society be seen as a “truly local organization”?

NGM China launched in 2007.

• NGM’s local language partners are encouraged to produce some of their own content. But most local editions still rely on NGM headquarters to generate the bulk of the editorial. So, when Editor Chris Johns evaluates story proposals, he has to ask: Will this article appeal to readers in Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Hungary, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey… all the Arabic-speaking countries listed above… and a host of English-speaking countries. As a result, you end up with lots of critter, climate, and landscape stories, and none with a title like “Thomas Jefferson: Architect of Freedom.”

If John were a bit more forthcoming, we imagine him saying something like this:

… The minute you go international you’ve got to change a lot— especially when venturing beyond the Western world. You must absorb the local customs, beliefs, and values, and then reflect them back to the local market. You must embrace a particular kind of multiculturalism. You must satisfy your customers. In effect, you must become a publishing chameleon that can blend seamlessly and simultaneously into many different surroundings.

Such a dramatic makeover often requires bold steps. In National Geographic’s case, we’ve had to abandon some old ways, and embrace new ones. Let me give you an example….

July 1944

Years ago, National Geographic refused to publish stories about the Soviet Union. Why? Because during most of the Cold War, the Magazine’s editors were staunch anti-communists. During World War II, National Geographic actively promoted the sale of U.S. war bonds on the cover of the Magazine (right) because the editors had an agenda: Defeat fascism. For decades, NGM published stories with the word “Our” in the title — Our Armies of Mercy (May 1917, about the American Red Cross); Our Growing Interstate Highway System (February 1968); Our National Forests: Problems in Paradise (September 1982). That first-person-plural pronoun reflected the fact that National Geographic is the official journal of a Society which, back then, saw itself, its members, and the world in national, not international terms.

Most of all, the Magazine, from the 1940s to the 1980s, had a clear point of view — one that celebrated freedom and democracy.

Problem is, how can you export a Magazine like that to China? You can’t. So I began introducing some fundamental changes at NGS — but I did so gradually, so as not to alarm the natives.  [laughter] Among my innovations:

•  We now focus less on national geography, and more on the natural world — trees, critters, climate and such.

•  I crafted a new mission statement: Inspiring people to care about the planet.” That’s less national, more global. It also frames Society-wide initiatives such as our efforts to protect big cats. (We’ll leave the protection of free speech to others.)

Chris Johns

I picked Chris Johns, a wildlife photographer with virtually no management experience, to be the Magazine’s Editor. (I pay him more than $625,000 per year, which may seem like an exorbitant salary for an editor of a non-profit ink-on-paper magazine that’s dying. But I find the money encourages Chris to be more open-minded about the changes I’ve needed him to implement.)

•  I’m also working hard to eliminate the word “Society” from our nameplate and brand profile. Why? Because people don’t want to belong as much as they want to buy — DVDs, t-shirts, trips to New Zealand, luggage, bedroom furniture… whatever. Don’t think “membership”; think “retail.”

Put another way: If you see the world in national terms, then people are citizens who embrace different allegiances and values. That’s a tough world in which to scale up a media business. But if you see the world as a marketplace, then people are consumers who buy stuff.

These two identities — citizen & consumer — are not mutually exclusive, of course. But one of them creates a much bigger arena where we can sell our cheetah pictures.

My business challenge has been to identify a global common denominator that will help transform National Geographic into a profitable global brand.

My approach has been to focus on what people share (the planet) instead of on what makes people different (i.e., our values).

Unfortunately, there are two downsides to my strategy. First, I’m abandoning one of National Geographic’s secrets to success: Difference. Those classic Geographic photos of bare-breasted women were not just titillating for teenage boys; they were also a vivid reminder that the world is an eye-popping kaleidoscope of nations and cultures and people who understand the world in dramatically different ways.

Second, by focusing on The Planet, we end up climbing into bed with some nasty characters — autocrats, dictators, and demagogues. That may strike you as wrong, or immoral, or soulless. But let’s be frank: I run a business, not a seminary.

I hasten to add that I enjoy a luxury that many other media executives don’t: Freedom from scrutiny. The non-profit side of the Society has no stockholders. The employees have no union. NGS has “members,” but they have no power, no vote, no real voice. And I almost never agree to be interviewed by journalists. Which means the future of the National Geographic Society is almost entirely in the hands of about 20 people — the Board of Trustees, many of whom I’ve hand-picked, and… me.

All that — plus, as CEO & Chairman of this tax-exempt, non-profit Society, I’m paid more than $1.35 million per year.

The take-away for all you non-profit executives in the audience?

•  Don’t be afraid to change “a bit” — or a lot.

•  Evaluate the growth potential of various global markets, and re-position yourself as needed. After all, one dollar of revenue from Beijing counts the same as one dollar of revenue from Boston.

•  Hire senior managers who — after federal, state, and FICA deductions — will eagerly embrace your values and vision.


Stay thirsty, my friends.   [laughter]

Any questions?


Brand Killer

Here’s one of our biggest fears: The Harvard Business School will, some day soon, write another case study about National Geographic, and ask: What happened to this once-beloved, once-revered Brand?

Exhibit A will be initiatives like this “special advertising section” (above) “brought to you by Dupont.”

Give it a quick glance, and you’d think it’s similar to Shell’s sponsorship of NG’s Great Energy Challenge — with a corporate logo and a “message from [company name here]” tucked respectfully off to the side of the main content, which is produced by National Geographic.

But unlike the Shell deal, this entire “Global Collaboratory” is one long message from, for, and by Dupont. The words are ad copy. The links go to more ads for Dupont. And while that “special advertising section” tag is intended to give NGS distance and deniability, it’s embarrassingly obvious that National Geographic took the money from Dupont, and then said, in effect: You paid our price, so go ahead — have your way with our Brand.

Even the link that took us to Dupont’s Global Collaboratory gives the game away:

“NGco-branded“? But we thought this was a “special advertising section.”

Dear John,
Why is selling the Brand this way
a good thing for our Society?

John rarely, if ever, gives interviews.
But we’re asking for one — partly to hear his answer to this question —
and you can help by clicking “Recommend,” below.

Don’t have a Facebook account? Or prefer not to show your face? That’s okay.
Just email me — alan [at] societymatters [dot] org — and
I’ll raise our Anonymous But Curious tally by one.
(It’s under the Facebook widget in the right sidebar.)

Happy 123rd birthday, NGS!

January 13, 1888: Thirty-three explorers and scientists gathered at the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC, to organize "a society for the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge."

The National Geographic Society turns 123 years old today.


≡  Founders @ the Cosmos Club via National Geographic—Deutschland

Convergence isn’t just about technology

Product placement in movies has a long history…

… but our Society is redefining the form.

(From Ultimate Factories: Porsche on the National Geographic Channel)

Chain of Command

In 20+ years at NGS, we never saw a comprehensive org chart of the Society.
So kudos to the Harvard Business School for publishing at least a partial one.

(click here for a larger version)

from a Harvard Business School case study by Garvin & Knoop

Harvard Business School: The NGS Case Study

This just in — a new case study about the National Geographic Society by the Harvard Business School.

We bought a copy ($12), and will have lots more to say about the study in the days & weeks to come. But for now, we wanted to share this passage about one of our favorite subjects — membership:

[CEO John] Fahey created a cross-functional team, called the Membership Task Force [that] spent 12 weeks developing and evaluating new membership models to support the NGS mission, engage members, differentiate NGS from other media, generate revenues, and “unify our message and our audience.”

The team found that current “members” viewed themselves primarily as subscribers and not as belonging to the Society. NGS promoted membership solely through its marketing of the magazine, with a narrow set of benefits. “We do a superb job at telling the world’s stories, but are not effectively telling our own story,” the Membership Task Force concluded.

The task force saw an opportunity to extend the membership platform and expand recruitment to all NGS readers and consumers, making membership a meaningful experience that “engages, inspires, educates, and involves our audience.” “Every futurist and sociologist speaks of increased alienation and isolation in modern society, a trend that is growing and is worrisome,” the task force explained. “Most talk about the basic need people have for a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves to give their lives meaning, context, and relevance. We can do so. . . We just need to learn how to market [it].”  [emphasis added]

Amen & hallelujah! But… uhh… what’s the “it“? What’s “our own story” that we need to market?

In its 122-year history, National Geographic has embraced so many different story lines. Some have been inspiring; others have been disastrous. Some have spoken to us like citizens who are key players in a great and historic drama; others have addressed us as custodians of a planetary museum. Some are uplifting and engaging; others are a burden. Some draw us in; other make us flee.

Which story should our Society be telling?

More on the HBS case study, coming soon….

For Sale — Our Society’s Biggest Asset: You

Food for thought as National Geographic
continues to sell advertising “partnerships” like this one.

Opportunity Awaits

As it ponders a $6 billion acquisition offer from Google, the executives at Groupon are nervous, says Mr. Vacanti, because…

“[T]he brands of these [old] media companies, while not having deal authority, do have product and service authority. They’ve been telling their audience how to spend their money for years. For example, you are much more likely to trust a golf magazine’s recommendation of a specific golf course outing than Groupon’s recommendation. Plus a golf course would rather be recommended by a golf magazine than Groupon.

These large, old media companies with millions of users and strong brands will create real competition for Groupon.”

Put another way: Imagine you want to buy a new digital camera — say, a Nikon D3000. Would you rather buy the camera via Groupon, which might find you a bargain price but which doesn’t know diddly about photography. OR, would you rather buy the camera via National Geographic, which has millions of existing members (“collective buying power”) and which could contribute its photographic expertise to the transaction. Plus, once you buy the camera, you’d have the technical and creative support of thousands of other photography enthusiasts who made the same purchase, and who you’d be able to contact via National Geographic’s robust online network (which exists only in our imagination).

Buying the camera is only the beginning, of course. The real benefits to the Society would come when people started taking pictures and making videos — and sharing them. But to realize these benefits, John Fahey needs to stop chasing advertisers, and start catering to the Society’s real — but rapidly vanishing — power base: NGS members.

We floated this idea when we first launched Society Matters 18 months ago, and we were planning to ask John about it — but he recently rescinded his long-standing invitation to stop by his office for a visit. Why the cold shoulder? We’re not exactly sure. We have many more great ideas that we’d love to share, and that we’re confident could help our Society.

John rarely, if ever, gives interviews.
But we’re asking for one, partly to explore this idea.
If you think John should join us for an extended Q&A,
then please click “Recommend,” below.

Don’t have a Facebook account? Or prefer not to show your face? That’s okay.
Just email me — alan [at] societymatters [dot] org — and
I’ll raise our Anonymous But Curious tally by one.
(It’s under the Facebook widget in the right sidebar.)

NO NEW POSTS will be published here after February 6, 2014. THIS IS WHY.